“When massive, seemingly soulless corporations recognize that the happiness of the workforce is a great predictor of long-term sustainable success, then you’ll see the societal tip occur.” ~Shawn Achor
Shawn Achor spent over a decade living, researching, and lecturing at Harvard University, and has been involved in one of the largest studies of happiness and potential at Harvard and others at companies like UBS and KPMG. He brings a truly unique perspective of applying positive psychology to the business world.
In 1998 Martin Seligman, then president of the American Psychological Association, set a new direction for the discipline: Positive psychology. What has followed is an unprecedented publication of robust research and applied interventions. In 2000, Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, published an article in the American Psychologist that anchored positive psychology as an evidence–based practice.
Since then the positive psychology movement has boomed. Founded with the intention of building thriving individuals, families, and communities, proponents of the discipline can be found in popular and academic publications, working with an array of corporate entities, and teaching on college campuses throughout the world. There are even graduate degrees in positive psychology.
In 2005, under Seligman’s guidance, the University of Pennsylvania offered the first applied positive psychology master’s program. It continues to thrive today. Undergraduate courses are showing up in the curriculum of colleges around the world. Dozens of universities now offer masters degrees in positive psychology. Csikszentmihalyi has even created a Ph.D program at his Claremont, Calif. campus.
Shawn Achor is rapidly becoming a leader in each of these areas. In 2006, he was Head Teaching Fellow for Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar’s “Positive Psychology,” the most popular course at Harvard University at the time.
The following year, Achor founded Good Think Inc. to share his research with a wider population. He has since gone on to speak in over 45 countries, and found tremendous success with his book The Happiness Advantage.
Achor offers a dynamic, research-based shift for businesses wishing to apply positive psychology. He has taken time out of his busy schedule to do an enlightening interview for Psych Central about the background and direction of his work.
PC: In “The Happiness Advantage” you seem to employ a careful balance of science and storytelling. How did this develop?
SA: I was a debater in high school, which means two things: I didn’t date much, and I write like I’m making a case. But watching my academic heroes, I realized that they were terrible communicators. Fantastic ideas presented in a non-engaging way means that the passion for the subject and its import are not translated to the listener.
Even more importantly, stories help you remember and implement the information. My favorite professor at Harvard, Brian Little (who wasn’t even tenured), used to fill his lectures with engaging stories. I actually thought it was a waste because I’d have to listen to like 3 to 5 minutes of a story before finding a single nugget to write down in my notes to prepare for the exam. But I not only remember almost all those stories, I remember all the nuggets, whereas intro psych courses are often a waste because they are an information dump, which leads to your brain quickly dumping that information from working memory.
So after crafting the scientific case for why happiness fuels performance and not the other way around, I then went back through and actually highlighted in blue jokes, interesting facts, or stories in my manuscript. If I had a block of black on a page with no blue, I went back in and added more blue-worthy sections.
PC: What are the main effects of the happiness advantage?
SA: The biggest effect is the belief that your behavior matters. If you start a positive habit and see that it has a positive effect upon your business or health outcomes, your brain is more willing to utilize resources to continue that behavior and scan for new ones. The resulting effect is a cascade of success as greater meaning and well-being fuel more successes than garnered by defensive pessimism or cynicism.
In HBR Magazine this January, I talk about an assessment I’m working on testing not whether you receive social support, but if you give it. Individuals in the top quartile on this assessment were 40 percent more likely to have received a promotion in the past year and were 10 times more engaged at work than those in the lowest quartile. Companies who are interested in engagement, which was the flavor of the year for 2011, should start understanding more about what causes engagement than merely evaluating it. Yet many companies think, “we can talk about happiness once the economy recovers,” but if positive mindset leads to greater success rates as Lyubomirsky’s meta-analysis suggests, then it’s too late.